Skipping over their breakfast and talk about the imperium’s business proposal, we find Edward back on the road toward Austin, with another offer in mind. This represents the raw conclusion of Part One of “Imperium’s Shadow.” There will be much I need to revise and extend, but this is not too bad for a book I never intended to write. Wednesday and this weekend shall see me back in the basement, recording, but now I also must begin to turn my thoughts to Prince Robert – a “normie” – and what he does in Kentuckiana.
Not used to such a feast for breakfast, Ryland grabbed her Navy jacket and was half out the front door.
“This also has an e-lock!” she called over her shoulder. “I’m sure it’s no trouble for you! Later, Prince!”
Only a few moments after the screen door closed did Edward begin to move. While summoning his men, he cleaned and dried everything they had used to make and eat breakfast.
Something so simple, so mundane. So enjoyable. Why is it so alien to me? Being a demi? Because of my mother? My rank?
“Likely all of them,” he sighed, knowing better to ascertain cause to a single point. Hearing the car and van outside, he made one more glance about. With a smile, he took a post-it note and drew a pointy umbrella. On one side of the handle, he wrote Edward. On the other, ambiguously, Rupert. I hope she gets the joke.
Out the front door, he threw the bolt with a corner of his mind. He paused just a moment to look south at the church. He had time to pray – there always was – but felt he should be in motion, back northwest. Getting into the car next to MacDougal, he felt his man’s eyes linger on him out of more than professional curiosity.
“All’s well. Let’s go back to Austin,” he directed.
“Of course, Prince,” his aide said. “Any particular destination?”
“I’ll let you know…” he whispered, letting his mind into the Void.
For any of his demi-human siblings, which was everyone but Caillie, Robert, and Julian, his eyes would have flared a little at this point. His, once, scarlet. It had scared many when he was growing up. In his Brotherhood he had even been called a demon. After his mother’s punishment, that accusation would never happen again.
The Empress said on many occasions to us that how we appear and comport ourselves is as important as what we do, he thought. Demi-humans must be regarded as less than Machine but more than human. So that humans would obey, comfortably taking the light yoke of their new masters. In what I cannot do now, she made sure I cannot succeed her as emperor. But, it also makes me a natural ally to humans who desire… greater degrees of freedom.
Putting aside his near-treason, he shattered the Department of War’s firewall and looked at Livia’s work schedule as their car crossed the bridge back to the mainland. He recalled what his great uncle said about personal data and smiled. So far as Edward knew, only the Russian Empire had not embraced the schema that all such was private property of the person – whether biologic or not – and the inspection or use of another’s data was, depending on the jurisdiction, a civil or criminal offense. Sometimes both.
Edward didn’t much care. He saw Liv had her analytics job for two hours after lunch then some departmental meeting from then until 1600. He sent a “cannot attend” notice for the meeting before reaching into this uniform’s coat pocket for his phone. He paused, let go of it, and smiled.
He stood on what looked like a three-foot-wide path of obsidian. Around him were bushes and trees, but all made of crystals; they screeched and cried as the wind blew them about. Above, the sky was a breathtaking blue. The construct of Alexandra Hood.
They have known one another since he was born. He came to understand as he became older that she was once his mother’s great rival, one of the last holdouts to her imperium. After years, they grew from tolerating one another to careful friends, but there was always a tension he never grasped. As the first ones to comfort him after his punishment, they became allies, of a sort. To use the construct of tribe Tohsaka would mean no privacy. That of tribe Mendro, a debt to Reina. The Machines at Arpeggio had little interest in humans. So that meant this crystalline fake of what had once been the Knoxville Zoo. With his body in the car, his mind in the Void, and his consciousness here, he called his cousin.
“What?” she answered her phone in an annoyed tone.
“Videocall?” he asked.
“Fine! Oh. You’re at Alex’s place. You wanna talk dirty or something?”
He was glad she was already on point.
“Not now, but this afternoon, perhaps.” He continued quickly before she could snark more. “I’m on my way back from Galveston this morning. I thought a picnic early dinner on a bluff over Lake Travis. I’ll buy!”
“That’s… well… I have a meeting, so – ”
“I canceled it.”
“You asshole! That’s illegal!”
“Diplomatic immunity, Liv.”
“Dammit! Well… I guess I could meet you – ”
“With your driving? I said early dinner, not a midnight snack.” She opened her mouth to yell again. “I’ll be by your office around fifteen-thirty. I’m sure whatever you’re wearing is fine. You are so cute, after all.”
He watched her flush red and look away.
“That… that’s okay. I guess.” She looked back. “Did everything go okay with Mom? Is she leaving?”
“She said that she would – ” he began.
“And did you bang her?”
Now it was Edward’s chance to be uncomfortable.
“No,” he said very carefully, “I did not. And, I did tell her I like you.”
“Oh.” She turned red again and shook. Time to end this.
“Three thirty.” She shook again as she ended the call from her end.
“Mac?” Edward said, his eyes still shut. “Wake me if I don’t just outside of Austin.”
“You’s got it, Prince.” His bodyguard smiled, knowing more of what the young man was up to than likely he did.
After a stop for sandwiches and a bottle of sweet wine – Edward knew his family history, including that of Livia’s grandparents – his retinue in the van returned to the hotel while his car parked at a side entrance of the Texas Department of War. While the car was nondescript, anyone in an imperial uniform would have attracted attention which would have attracted pictures. Pictures that would immediately indicate who was their target. He didn’t need the hassle and more importantly, didn’t need the distraction from his current task.
Very close to what he first saw her wearing down by the river, Livia Rupert came out of the four-story building with her flats, black socks rather than thigh-highs, short black skirt, and scarlet sweater with a white crusader cross on the front. It was warmer and she had pushed up her sleeves. Her two twin-tails accentuated her face, especially her eyes which lit up to see him leaning on his car. He moved his arms a fraction from his sides and opened his palms toward her.
“Too public?” he asked when she was just ten feet away.
“If anyone is watching, they are watching you, not me,” she said, not stopping until she was pressed close to him. He put his hands onto her back.
“Not too soon after lunch, I hope?” he asked. She shook her face into his chest before looking up.
“After your call, well, I skipped lunch.”
“Let’s be on our way, then!” He opened the rear passenger door for her before going round the other side. MacDougal moved them out immediately.
“How does he know where he’s going!” she whispered in an angry tone.
“Ask him, not me, Liv!”
“Uh…!” she tried to begin, louder this time.
“Not just my stint in the legions, young Miss,” MacDougal called back, not taking his eyes from the road or any possible threat, “but even ins my Brotherhood, I’s was always leadin’ everyone on our hikes and marches. Just got a compass in my head, I guess!”
“Must be nice…” she answered, more to herself. A blink then she turned to her cousin. “You said a bluff. So much of Lake Travis is overrun by homes these days – ”
“Yes, I know,” Edward chided her. “But, I am a little better at overhead imagery than you are, Liv! I had two spots in mind and passed them on to my best man, here. It’s his decision where we end up!”
“B… best…” she was almost choking.
“A term for how much I value him, cousin,” Edward said, leading to touch his forehead to hers. “Don’t worry. Yet.”
Her rictus of a smile was his answer. He watched her jerk her head right to look out the hills they were climbing.
“I… I know the streets of Tucson, Mexico… I know the smugglers’ trails around Casper, RMF… why can’t I recall this? Minutes from my home?” Another sigh. “I’m pathetic.”
Something strong was about her thin waist and another thing, warm and moist, was on her left temple.
“You are amazing, Livia,” Edward said, leaning back from kissing her head. Hopefully, before she slapped him.
“D… don’t,” she yelled while clasping her hands between her knees, “don’t just go and kiss people! Stupid!”
“Hope that thar’ new ice age comes soon!” the driver called, pulling off to the side of the road and stopping, “’Cause it’s way too hot in this here car rat now!”
Up to almost two-thirds of all of his neurological improvements to not burst out laughing and ruin all he was trying to do, Edward opened his door and went around to open his date’s. MacDougal had lowered the front passenger window at the same time and proffered the plastic bag of sandwiches and drinks. That in his left and Livia’s arm entwined with his right, they walked west for only a few yards through some mesquite trees.
“What the…!” she exclaimed. The lake was almost two hundred feet below them. This was no path or park. Just a sheer drop from the fieldstone.
“Like I said,” Edward smiled at her as she looked to him, “we all see things differently. Your metadata, for example. You don’t pass that into the field, do you? It goes to Intelligence first, right?”
She almost snarled.
“Did you steal that too – ?”
“No. I’ve served in many different capacities in Her Majesty’s Legions. I’ve watched the sky. I’ve watched a rain-soaked hill a hundred yards ahead of me, hoping to not get shot.” He shrugged and pointed at a longer, flat area where they might both fit for lunch. It just big enough for two people who liked one another. With another “huff!” Livia sat down.
“You read my Mom’s file about her parents,” she said, looking at what he had brought.
“I thought everyone owned their own data,” he tossed right back, “here in Texas, the imperium, the Empire, and the Japs.”
“You think that doesn’t mean families tell stories?” She was truly incredulous. “Did your freaky mom never tell you and yours stories about the Change? About before?”
“No.” In the process of trying to open the half-size bottle of wine, Livia nearly dropped it. He seized it from her, took off his boot, and with a *whap!* to the base, smacked the cork out before passing it back to her. “Mother never wants to talk about the Change. I go to Aunt Henge or cousins Aurie and Roland if I want the truth. I have no idea why she avoids the subject.”
“Sorry,” Livia said softly. “My mom and her parents would always answer whatever I asked. Grandmother would ask her best friend, Ai, whenever she didn’t know something. We… well, as you know from Mom, we never keep secrets from one another.”
“I’m aware,” Edward noted, after a drink of water from his bottle to lean over and kiss the side of her head again. “It’s one of the things I so envy about you and your family.”
He watched as she slowly put her sandwich down and wiped her mouth. She turned left to him.
“Kiss me properly, Ed,” she said, her eyes steady but her shoulders shaking but a little.
He did. Once. Lips together. He drew back and marveled at her look of contempt.
Again, his hands on her shoulders as they explored one another. While trying to ignore all time when she finally came up for air… 91 seconds.
“Dang!” She looked around to find her sandwich and take a bite. “I hope that was for me and not Mom!”
“That reference has gone entirely too far,” Edward said, moving his right hand from her shoulder and onto her left breast. His lips back onto hers, he moved his hand under her sweater to hold her skin with his. Another shudder. But, he was wondering what she was doing…?
“Liv?” he asked into her mouth as he felt her right hand unzip his pants.
“We… you’re gonna marry me…” she gasped into his mouth. “Gotta know what I’m getting…!”
Livia suddenly drew back from his and looked down.
“Oooo! Nice! I’ve seen plenty of pictures! Will this really fit into me?” she asked.
“If You Don’t Mind!” Edward said, moving her hand, adjusting himself, and zipping his trousers back up, completely lost in her aggressive behavior, “now is not the time, Liv!”
Her look to him was one of just how big an idiot he could be.
“You gonna marry me, Ed?” she asked.
“I… I think so, Livia.” He collected himself much faster than a human could. “You are smart, cute. And politics.”
Her wide-open eyes continued to stare at his.
“So why can’t I have your dick now?” she asked, unzipping his pants again.
“POLITICS!” he shouted at her, angry in his frustrated lust, moving her hand again and re-zipping his trousers. “I am a Crown Prince! You are and will be a Princess! Let’s behave ourselves!”
“Oh, Ed!” She turned back toward the drop of land and picked up her sandwich. “You take yourself too seriously!”
“Perhaps… perhaps I do, Liv,” he acknowledged the hit. “I serve a harsh master.”
“And if I marry you, I’m just one of Faustina’s playthings, too? Just a tool in her kit?” she asked around her last bite before washing it down with the wine straight from the bottle.
“That’s what she’ll want and that is how she will treat you, yes, Liv,” he admitted. “I don’t want that.”
“How much say does a Crown Prince have, husband-to-be?” Livia taunted him.
“In the imperium? Very little,” he admitted. “In Texas, or…”
He tilted his head to look straight up.
“Or?” she echoed.
“Or off-world? Little here. None there.” Edward said.
She put her trash into a bag then leaned back onto her hands, looking straight ahead into the distance of central Texas.
“Gotta admit, you are not a cheap date, Ed: promising a girl the Moon and the stars. But you really sound like a pussy for being under your mother’s foot, regardless.”
“I cannot change what I am! What we are – !” he began.
“My God! You are such a boy about dumb things!” This time, she moved to her left and kissed him. “I won’t marry a boy, Edward, no matter what his title or genes. You have to make up your mind!”
She pivoted up and into his lap. The curl of her lip meant she felt his immediate physical reaction before he could override his autonomic reaction to that. Her look softened as she leaned to kiss him, just once, just for a moment.
“You do what?” he asked.
Her grin split her face and her eyes shown like black fire.
“I do: promise to love and obey you, so long as it’s you and not her!” she laughed at him.
“I didn’t even propose,” Edward muttered. He again put his hands about her waist. “I do, too. And, I promise.”
From the car, MacDougal lowered his field glasses and considered the time with a sigh.